Boogie Nights to Thriller: Rod Temperton, the soul genius most fans have never heard of

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Along with the unbearably sad deaths of David Bowie, Prince and George Michael in 2016, we also lost a musician and composer whose songs have almost certainly been heard by even more people than those much-missed stars – yet most of them would not even recognise his name.

I’m talking about Rod Temperton, who composed the title track of the biggest-selling album of all time: Michael Jackson’s Thriller (an estimated 65 million sales worldwide). He also wrote Baby Be Mine and The Lady in My Life for that album, and three songs on its predecessor, Rock With You, Burn This Disco Out and the title track, Off the Wall.

He may have kept a low profile, but Rod’s success brought him homes in Los Angeles, the south of France, Switzerland and Fiji, a long way from his origins in Cleethorpes, an unglamorous seaside town in Lincolnshire, where he was born in 1949. After leaving school (where he had played drums in his first group) he worked at a frozen fish factory in nearby Grimsby before moving to Germany in the 1970s to work as a touring keyboard player, forming a soul covers band, Soul Carousel, with guitarist Bernd Springer.

Then in 1974 he replied to an ad placed in Melody Maker by Johnnie Wilder Jr, a former US serviceman. The resulting disco-funk outfit, Chicago’s Heatwave, soon simply Heatwave, released their first album in 1977 and Rod’s superb Boogie Nights reached No 2 on both sides of the Atlantic. (He’s the skinny white bloke on the right.)

The follow-up, Always and Forever, was another big hit and a fine second album, Central Heating (featuring The Groove Line and the sublime The Star of a Story), followed. After that Rod left Heatwave, though continuing to write for them, to join ace producer Quincy Jones’s team working on Off the Wall. Engineer Bruce Swedien called Temperton “the most disciplined pop music composer I’ve ever met – when he comes to the studio, every musical detail is written down or accounted for in Rod’s mind“.

The soul for getting down: Rod Temperton with Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson

It was time for the next album. Rod recalled in a 2006 interview (entitled “The Invisible Man”) with BBC Radio 2: “Quincy said, ‘Well, you came up with the title of the last album, see what you can do for this album.’ I went back to the hotel. I wrote two or three hundred titles for this song.” One option was Midnight Man, another Starlight. Then Thriller came to him. “Something in my head just said ‘this is the title’. You could visualise it at the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as Thriller. I wrote all the words very quickly, then went to the studio and we did it.”

It was Temperton’s idea to use a horror film star to do the spoken word section at the end of the song. Jones’s wife was a friend of Vincent Price, who got the job (for a flat fee of $20,000, a decision he may later have come to regret). Rod wrote the words in a cab on his way to the recording session in Los Angeles, at which he and Greg Phillinganes created the song’s compelling bassline by playing two Minimoogs in unison. The album, of course, was a sensational success.

As well as his work with Jackson there were big Temperton-composed hits for artists ranging from George Benson, with Give Me the Night (1980), and Patti Austin and James Ingram, with Baby, Come to Me (1981), along with many others. Temperton received two Oscar nominations in 1986 for contributions to The Color Purple. He also won a Grammy in 1991.

It seems almost incredible that a white working-class English boy should develop such a feel for disco, soul and funk that he was able to work so successfully with some of the all-time greats of black music like Jackson, Jones and Benson. It’s a unique career trajectory. Bruce Swedien said of his first listen to a Heatwave album: “Holy cow! I simply loved Rod’s musical feeling. Everything about it – Rod’s arrangements, his tunes, his songs – was exceedingly hip.”

It wasn’t Thriller that made Michael Jackson a star, but it was Thriller that made him perhaps the biggest star on the planet. Certainly it’s impossible to imagine the album, the video, and Jackson’s subsequent career having such an impact without its title track and best-known song. But while Thriller may have been Rod Temperton’s biggest success, I think his best song is Rock With You. Sheer, coruscating, brilliance, complemented by the perfect lyric (and epitaph) … and when the groove is dead and gone, you know that love survives, so we can rock for ever.

Last modified: January 19, 2017

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